Interview with Gene Ovnicek

© Rob Edwards

published in ANVIL Magazine, September 1996

ANVIL: Gene, to set the record straight, your last name is pronounced OVI-NECK, correct?

GENE: Yes, that's right.

ANVIL: You seem to be the hot item in the farrier industry. You have developed, many people believe, the most effective treatment for laminitis and founder to date. I've discovered you have been working on this project for many years. When did you begin shoeing horses?

GENE: My shoeing business started when I was 16. I shod a lot of horses prior to that, however; my first horse was shod when I was 13. Like a lot of guys, I learned it because I couldn't afford to have anyone else do it. And so it continued. I trimmed the neighbor's horses and finally I would shoe horses here and there. I followed a few people around and watched what they did. I built my first forge in high school, and my own anvil.

ANVIL: With what materials?

GENE: A piece of railroad iron, like everybody else. Don Henstrom was my mentor. He was one of the early students of Ralph Hoover at Cal Poly. He was what I thought I wanted to be because he emulated peacefulness; he was performing a service, and was just a genuinely nice guy. So I did as much work around him as I could and watched very closely. He was a great help to me. I was fortunate because we rode horses so much that to put shoes on them was just a means of protecting the bottom of the foot. We had a good model to go by because the hooves were worn down to nothing with very little to trim. However, we thought we had to use all our tools. We cut them down with the knife and rasped them, did all this stuff - we were just kids then. But that's how it all evolved. I got to where I could keep shoes on better than a lot of guys, mostly because I didn't have to trim the foot a whole lot. I had forgotten about this after I got to be a real horseshoer - how successful I'd been early on, without even knowing what I was really doing, for the most part.

ANVIL: Did you go to a horseshoeing school after awhile?

GENE: Eventually I did. I took a short course at Montana State University. The idea of the shoeing school at Montana State got started with Doug Butler. When he moved on, they wanted to get another student from Cal Poly and so they offered these short courses. I was shoeing gaited horses before that, however. I was the closest thing there was to anyone who would build a fire in the forge and heat up iron.

ANVIL: Where in Montana?

GENE: Kalispell. I grew up in Spokane, Washington.

ANVIL: It's rather unusual that they would have gaited horses in a place like Kalispell, isn't it?

GENE: Well, you know, different people move to certain areas and they are inspired. Things get started and then a few other people take it up also. Pretty soon they've got a group. We used to have quite a few big open shows right there in Kalispell. There are a lot of Walking horses in that area. When I first started shoeing, I charged $5 a head and furnished the shoes - and trimmed them for 50 cents! I remember my dad had a fairly decent job making $2.50 an hour at the biggest aluminum plant in the country, there in Spokane. And I could shoe one horse in two hours and make just as much as he was earning. I also broke a few horses then too, so I was either shoeing or riding horses all the time.

ANVIL: Why were you training these horses?

GENE: I had a lot to learn from them. I have an older brother who is a trainer. We then had six or seven horses on a small acreage. There were five boys and no girls in our family. We lived adjacent to a rough area outside of Spokane. I don't know whether my dad did it intentionally, but it turned out to be a good investment because he retired on that piece of land. I think he bought the ranch and moved us all out there to keep us out of trouble. The horses kept us all busy. We grew up with a bunch of these rough kids around, but they always seemed to behave better when they were at our place. Because of the horses - it was something that kept them off the streets. So anyway, we ended up out of town and broke horses - we'd buy ones that weren't broke, we'd work with them and then resell them. My dad was pleased with that, because it kept us all out of trouble.

ANVIL: When you were in high school, did you aspire to horseshoeing as a career?

GENE: At 13 years old I wanted to be a horseshoer. There was no doubt in my mind, even then. So everything that I did, every shop project, had something to do with making my own tools. I'd make them three or four times until they worked. Almost everything I did I learned from the horses, actually. I would have to battle with them and soon after I'd end up changing my ways.

ANVIL: What took you to Kalispell?

GENE: I moved to Kalispell in 1965. I had a job for about ten months at an aluminum plant in Spokane where my dad worked. That was just after I got out of high school. I went into the service for six months out of that period, got my job back, hurt my back, quit and moved to Kalispell.

ANVIL: Is that your total job experience in working for someone else?

GENE: Yes.

ANVIL: So there you are in Kalispell, shoeing horses. Then you got into the gaited horse business.

GENE: I'd only been there four or five years before the word spread over to Great Falls that I could work steel in a fire. The people I worked for had gaited horses. I went to Tennessee twice with another friend of mine who had Tennessee Walkers.

All the information I'd gotten up to this point in time had come from looking at the foot and seeing what was happening from one shoeing to the next. I always kept in the back of my mind what would happen if the shoe wasn't there, just Mother Nature, and what I needed to do to service the needs of the foot. I remember waking up one night at 3 am and I knew if I was going to be content in this business, I would have to help bridge the gap between Mother Nature and what we were doing with our horses. At that point, I felt far away from Mother Nature. Yet, I feel I have a sense of the role Mother Nature plays with the horses - and the hoof in particular. I was driven to pursue the matter.

I was the only one in town who owned a forge, so I was considered to be a good horseshoer because I would crank that forge and make sparks fly! The community college was just being built and they wanted to offer a horseshoeing and trimming class there. So I was asked to be the instructor, and continued with it for 17 years. I think for what I do right now, that was probably the best thing I ever did because I learned more about shoeing horses and dealing with people than I ever would have otherwise. I took people who were absolutely green and was able to patiently teach them what I had learned.

ANVIL: These were mainly horse owners in the class?

GENE: Yes. However, a number of people in the class went on for more schooling after finishing up my class, and I highly recommended to those who seemed to have an affinity for it to do so. I also worked with my brother-in-law; we were shoeing together for six years. He is now one of the best farriers in that area. We scheduled a minimum of 20 horses every day for shoeing! We each knew exactly what the other was doing every single minute. We were a great team. We even designed a truck with two places to work.

ANVIL: Would both of you work on the horse?

GENE: Usually.

We would normally set up two horses at a time, and one of us would trim and the other would shoe. We were so obsessed that we'd try to see how we could take seconds off of each minute. We really got to be very efficient.

ANVIL: You guys were obsessed at 20 horses a day!

GENE: Oh, yes, we were. That was the high of the day, when we'd get a large bunch of horses to do, believe it or not. We were virtually indestructible then.

ANVIL: How old were you?

GENE: Close to 30. I never really slowed down until after I was 40 and my back began to get bad. But I never really lost that high that I got from doing that kind of work. There's a lot more to it than just shoeing horses. I can remember horses that I've shod in an almost perfect chronological order because I don't keep written records. I keep everything logged in the back of my mind. I'd remember what each horse's foot looked like. Certain horses in particular leave their definite impressions on me. And I used that as my database. Every year we'd always search for new answers. We kinked heels to keep shoes on, we rasped toes back, but we'd set our goals for one year to latch on to a particular procedure and we'd do it to some degree with every horse that year, to see what the effects were. At that time, I think we were charging somewhere around $13 or $14 a head. And so we could do a lot of horses in a day and still do alright for ourselves. We trimmed horses for $2 a head. I remember when I got to $4, I thought, wow! This is about what I used to charge for shoeing a whole horse when I first started, so it seemed like pretty big money to me.

ANVIL: What happened then? Did your back start giving out?

GENE: No, that didn't happen until four years ago. I finally reached a point when I started losing customers because I couldn't keep up. But in the back of my mind was always the question, what do these horses do in the wild? I remember that from back in my earliest days, because that's how I learned from these horses that we rode hard barefooted. And they all seemed to be perfect; we never had any trouble. Now we had new horse barns, and we had to shoe horses year 'round. Boy, did we ever begin to have problems! We didn't have that opportunity to turn those horses back out into the wild or into the backyards or pastures in the winter and let Mother Nature have a shot at it. Consequently, all of this stuff collided at one time and I got so discouraged. I almost gave up the business twice because I got so busy and had a multitude of problems. Then finally it all came together and things became clear to me. I knew I had to see wild horses. I knew there had to be a message there someplace. I shod some horses for a fellow who worked for the Bureau of Land Management in Missoula, Montana. He gave me some names, and I made some inquiries. I had developed some friendships with people who knew how to proceed in the direction I wanted to take. One friend of mine was a professional photographer, and another friend had a video camera. I told them what I wanted to do and that I would like for them to record my findings. We did just that; I put numbers on all of the horses, took data and measured the feet. I wanted to imprint the bottom of their feet. I decided I would put a flat board down, spray paint it, clean their feet out and rub the board on their feet. I wanted to measure the toe lengths, hoof gauge angles and begin to get a general idea. So I took my dividers and my shoeing tools and went to study and measure some wild horses.

ANVIL: Describe the actual situation there. Did they run these horses into a chute and rope them?

GENE: No, not exactly. They brought in loads of horses on trucks from other ranges and they processed them there. They freeze-branded them there, castrated them and prepared them for adoption. They singled them out into a big arena, headed them, and would gather the hind legs and then the front legs and would lay them down. It was well done and very ethically done. They did give us an opportunity to get in there and complete our work.

ANVIL: So as these horses were lying down roped up, you would then spray paint the board and shove it up against the foot after you had cleaned it out, in order to get an imprint.

GENE: Yes. We'd rub the foot and try to make it as flat to the surface as possible, then pull the board off and there it was - there was a breakover just as I saw on the shoes that we pulled off every day. And then we found marks on the heels on this group of horses. The feet were basically the same on every horse of this first group. They were broken out in the quarters and it wasn't that much different from some of the horses we'd been seeing at home. We worked on another group of horses and there was a consistency with that group, also, but with a different hoof shape. Yet, the pattern was the same. The four points that we got were always the same.

Of the two different groups, we found the hoof walls were a little different, sole formation was a little different, and frogs were a little different, but the breakover was always the same. The toe was always on the ground. That was the only consistent factor with all of these horses. The wranglers suggested that we look at the Prior Mountain horses if we wanted to really see something. So we went back the next year and really didn't try to digest all that we had observed at that particular time. But we had photographs, slide film and videotapes, and all of our recorded measurements.

Sure enough the next year, these were different feet. We thought, well, we're not going to get the same pattern on these because for the most part, the wall never touched the ground. There was an occasional one where you could pick up some imprint marks on the hoof wall, usually at the heels. But the rest of it was all basically sole. These horses were running on shale rock and decomposed granite. It was difficult sometimes to get that board to fit down on that foot because the frog was so close to the ground. But there were still four points and all of the same basic measurements from the tip of the frog to point of breakover - but beautiful-looking feet - much like when I was young and used to ride my horse on the gravel all the time. I'd seen many horses' feet like these when I was a kid and had forgotten about them. So it was the consistency of that hoof pattern that sort of led to the development of the World Racing Plate, which evolved right about that time. I knew there had to be something about that four-point pattern.

ANVIL: Could you describe in more detail the correlation between the four-point pattern and the development of the World Racing Plate?

GENE: When I developed that shoe, I looked at what it was most likely to be used for - on an arena surface. I questioned the wranglers who had gathered those wild horses, asked them where these horses came from and what they were running on. And I was able to correlate from that why these hoofs were shaped as they were. The hoof wall was broken out in the quarters. They told me what the range was like where these horses lived and what their basic habits were. So when I built that shoe, I built it around the use of an arena or a racetrack surface that was fairly soft. On those wild horses the frog was always real heavy and calloused, and the toe callouses were also real heavy. From that, I just figured that the toe and heels were the primary loading surfaces of that horse's hoof.

ANVIL: Why a race plate instead of a saddle horse shoe?

GENE: Well, we were going to build it in a saddle horse steel shoe and for some reason, it just didn't happen. The real need for early breakover is in the racing industry. It was probably going to be the toughest industry to attack, but nevertheless, it was still the best possible testing ground we had. So we contacted Thoro'Bred Racing Plate Company. At first, it was a little difficult to get them to accept it. However, after much consideration and some input from outside influences, Thoro'Bred decided to go ahead with it.

ANVIL: That shoe obviously has some advantages in setting the breakover back a little more than what's considered a normal shoe; however, in some cases, do you find that the horse tends to hike up a little bit with a shorter stride?

GENE: You know, that's a theory that a lot of racetrack people still maintain is true, but in fact it isn't. There have been enough people who have scientifically proven that it does not shorten the stride. In many cases, because of the soundness factor and removal of a lot of the stress from the leg, the horse will actually produce a longer stride. Several studies have proven that theory of the shortened stride to be invalid.

ANVIL: I used to shoe some Arabian endurance horses, and when I'd roll the toe, it would almost ruin their extended trot.

GENE: There's more to it than just rolling the toe or setting the shoe back. Heel placement and other factors are just as important. From my experience with the gaited horses, if the head is up, the leg comes up. If the head is out, the leg stays low and the foot is slow to get off the ground. Some of those horses that you worked with may have been high-headed.

ANVIL: In my interview with Bob Shirley (see ANVIL Magazine February, 1996), he mentioned that he tried the World Racing Plate shoe and the horses got sore backs. And when he put the shoes with grabs back on, they got better. Does that make any sense?

GENE: Most people are using World Racing Plates on the front. Because the breakover is back a bit, the horse can develop a lot of thrust from the hind end. You notice we've extended the grab on the hind shoe to serve the need for horses like that. It's a taller grab, and it sticks down a little over 1/8". It's a more user-friendly shoe.

ANVIL: At this stage, then, the World Racing Plate has a front pattern with a level grab for the front, and a hind pattern, but with an extended toe grab in the back.

GENE: Yes, and you can buy them in two designs now. You can buy them either way or you can buy a box of all fronts, if you want. Most of these shoes are being widely used for performance horses as well as in the racing industry. Barrel racers, headers, heelers and reiners love them because they don't lock up in front when they go to slide, and these horses move a little freer in front.

ANVIL: Simultaneously with your developing and patenting the World Racing Plate, Dave Duckett was coming out with some different theories on locomotion and what a shoe should look like. There seems to be a parallel in the way you two were seeing things.

GENE: I had talked to some people after I'd gotten my shoe developed and patented. About that time, someone told me that I should talk to Dave Duckett and that he was going to do a clinic in Olympia. He had held one for the past several years for a full week just before the AFA Convention so that people could tune up their blacksmith work and the like. I called Bill Miller in Washington, whom I didn't know at that time, and told him I wanted to attend his clinic. At the very last minute there were some cancellations, and I did get in. I wanted to show Dave all my research information. He looked at my slides and thought they were very interesting, and borrowed them to use as part of the class format. I then showed him the shoe I developed and told him I had patented it.

ANVIL: Who helped you along in this process?

GENE: A company called Creative Sales and Manufacturing. They do injection molding. In addition, they are business people, capital investors.

It was a very tough period financially for me and my family - real estate losses and other setbacks had occurred. But then I had a dream that showed me literally how the next few years would unfold with the design and ultimate acceptance of my World Racing Plate. And it has actually unfolded just that way. Now, whenever my ego gets in the way and I try to alter my course, it doesn't work out. I have to go back to the beginning and follow the order of things. Then it works out according to plan. I feel I'm just tapping into a reality of Mother Nature's design - it is not my design per se, but a cooperative effort between Mother Nature and me.

ANVIL: So the dream was prophetic. Did it also progress into what you are doing right now?

GENE: It dealt with lameness solutions because that was my primary goal. I got so frustrated and felt responsible for not having enough answers to keep horses sound. People were paying me to get the job done. I was following all the rules and regulations that I thought I needed to, just like everybody else. But I wasn't getting the job done. And it was obvious I wasn't addressing some of the needs that a lot of good farriers use today. A lot of those farriers have figured these things out intuitively, because they are as concerned as we are. Dave Duckett, Grant Moon, Burney Chapman and others have all paid a big price for their knowledge. This is just another way that can help people understand what these guys are doing and maybe help them go one step further to this natural link.

ANVIL: You mentioned four years ago you had some back problems.

GENE: I was not getting my project underway and getting it done as envisioned. As with everything that has happened, I always get forced to do the things that are important. So that's what the back surgery was all about, to give me time to do a reevaluation of my goals and get on with what was important. Because I was so passionate about this business of shoeing horses, I just couldn't quit, even laid up. I was obsessed. I needed to reach a bottom in order to get realigned with my goals; thus, the prolonged rest after back surgery.

ANVIL: So you had the time to think about it and put it all together in your mind and develop the Equine Digit Support System (EDSS)?

GENE: During my convalescence, I was able to reassess and get on track. The World Racing Plate hasn't been particularly profitable. But that was a business venture that helped prepare me for what I'm doing now with the laminitic shoe. It was an important step. Everybody in my life has helped me to get to where I am now.

ANVIL: When I first became aware of you, I was at the Bluegrass Laminitis Symposium where you had this weird contraption, and you told people it was going to be 100% successful.

GENE: I was very successful with the cases that I had done. I've had to become very scientific- minded. That has taught me an incredible lesson about 100% success, which is not attainable. We are just getting a higher percentage of success. All of the resistance that I've gotten - and will get - are all important lessons for me to become more aligned with what I have to do. At the Laminitis Symposium, I drew a foundered horse to work on for the team demonstration. Then I went to Dr. Redden and told him that I would like aluminum - the metal of choice - because steel was just too clunky for this type of shoe.

ANVIL: So by the time you got to the Laminitis Symposium, you were quite sure that this method worked.

GENE: Oh, yes. I began to have a higher level of success. There was an article on my success with the shoes that the American Farriers Journal ran. It was published the day before the Laminitis Symposium. A friend of mine who was hesitant about the shoe showed it to his vet. The vet picked up on its merits right away, and said it has all of the ingredients necessary to get these horses through this disease. So he came back and spent more time with me to learn more about using the shoe. Then I began teaching people how to use it; I didn't realize people were having some trouble with applying it on their own, so I decided to give workshops. There's still a lot to learn, but I feel I have some valuable information.

ANVIL: You've refined the application since the Symposium and now it's much more user-friendly.

GENE: If you don't have some very specific and basic instructions on how to shoe a horse, then it is difficult. Dave Duckett has some good tools; he uses the center of the foot as a reference. Yet even with that information, there are those who will still have problems. They lose track of those reference points. The heart bar shoe is a good example of that. There are those who can apply a heart bar without any problem. The heart bar shoe is a good tool. But then there are some who simply have problems with the application of them, and it can lead to serious trouble.

It's very important that instructions are made simple and understandable. I know people who use various types of treatments and do so very efficiently. I have to believe that they have some insight that I don't. Just because I'm not proficient with the heart bar shoe doesn't mean that it's not a good tool. It's going to take a lot of people working together on this particular devastating lameness to make serious headway with it. I think that I can make a contribution to the progress.

ANVIL: So at this stage, are you just working on therapeutic situations?

GENE: That certainly takes up a lot of my time.

ANVIL: I understand you are providing hands-on clinics to instruct in the application of the Equine Digit Support System.

GENE: Yes. My son, Cody, runs the business. We'd been looking for a long time for the right investors. But as it turned out, what appeared to be some reverses for us actually went in our favor and we profited in real estate. We were able to apply that profit to our own project. Everything has fallen into place.

ANVIL: Do you get the feeling you're along for the ride?

GENE: I sure do. I just have to stay out of the way. I've encountered a tremendous amount of resistance from people who are attached to the traditional ways of doing things, and I've learned to understand a lot more about people. I've had to learn to appreciate people who have led me in better directions with my project - necessary steps in my own evolution. My job, I feel, is being a medium between what Mother Nature is trying to tell us and what we need to do for the horses. The horse is a vehicle to help people make decisions about their own lives. For me, the wild horses have been the vehicle for simplicity and truth.

ANVIL: That's for sure.

GENE: Almost everything I've learned, I've learned from horses. They're expensive; they're heartbreaking; they fulfill our egos a lot of times; they fill a space in our lives that is not being addressed by human beings, and they give us a unique opportunity. Horses are tremendous for helping human beings become more peaceful.

ANVIL: Thank you, Gene, for sharing your thoughts with us today.

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